With growing public and professional interest in “self-tracking”, it is important to consider the limitations as well as the possibilities, says digital sociologist Professor Deborah Lupton.

“The realities of quantifying the self do not always meet expectations,” she writes below.

Nonetheless, it seems a safe prediction that 2014 will bring yet more news about the rise of the quantified self.

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The self-tracking phenomenon: quantifying the self in the pursuit of self-knowledge

Deborah Lupton writes:

Self-tracking practices have recently received public attention as ways of collecting data about oneself and using these data to optimise or improve one’s life. Self-tracking involves individuals using various technologies to monitor, record and evaluate various aspects of their bodily functions and everyday habits. Other terms used to describe these practices are life-logging and the quantified self.

A vast range of behaviours, activities and bodily functions are monitored and measured by self-trackers, including sleep patterns, mood, sexual activities, diet, body weight, blood pressure, alcohol intake, exercise, work habits, use of technologies, driving habits and social encounters among many other aspects.

Since 2007, the popular media have increasingly reported on these practices. Interest on the part of the public has grown apace, as evidenced by rising numbers of people searching for the term ‘quantified self’ on Google (see my blog post The risk of the quantified self as a cultural phenomenon).

A survey conducted in the USA found that almost 70 percent of adults engaged in self-tracking or monitoring of a loved one’s health indicators. Interest in self-tracking has also developed in the medical and public domains, with writers beginning to remark on its value for patient self-care, health promotion and disease prevention (see here and here for examples).

Self-tracking brings together a number of new digital technologies: sensor-based technologies, mobile and ubiquitous digital media, big data, digital data visualising technologies and gamification. There are a rapidly growing number of specifically designed devices such as the Fitbit, Jawbone’s Up, Nike Fuelband and Zeo headband, clothing and running shoes embedded with sensors and various brands of adhesive patches that are available for self-tracking.

Digital body weight scales, blood oxygen saturation monitors and blood pressure monitors that link to smartphones are also on the market for purchase by those interested in self-tracking. A range of devices can also be bought by parents interested in tracking their children, even before birth. However, some people still prefer to self-track using analogue technologies such as pen-and-paper or simply keep track in their heads of their activities.

I have been researching self-tracking practices for some time now and as a sociologist am interested in the broader social, cultural, ethical and political implications of their use (see here and here for academic articles I have published on this topic).

I argue that the quantified self has emerged in the context of the current cultural moment of data-utopia, or the belief that data are superior forms of knowledge, combined with the affordances of contemporary digital technologies that allow individuals to produce large masses of data about themselves.

Another dimension is the participatory features of social media, which encourage people to share their data with others as part of a self-tracking community or competitive endeavour. These discourses and practices intersect with others concerning individualisation (the idea that we are the authors of our own destinies), the neoliberalist privileging of self-responsibility and the importance of attaining knowledge about the self as part of working upon and improving the self.

Self-tracking practices also underline the growing importance individuals are placing upon exerting control over their own data and customising it for their own purposes. Self-trackers are often engaged in the practice of seeking to make meaning out of their data.

The practice is not simply about collecting data, as this suggests, but also attempting to engage with such issues as what should be done with these data, how they should be presented and interpreted and what the implications are for one’s self-identity and future life prospects and success.

Many people have reported that they feel more in control of their lives by engaging in self-tracking practices, and have successfully lost weight, improved their working habits, physical fitness or sleeping habits and identified the sources of stress in their lives (see the Quantified Self website for many examples).

Also beginning to emerge, however, are accounts by people who have tried self-tracking but have become disenchanted with the practice. They may become bored with engaging in self-tracking, find that these practices distract them from other aspects of their lives, that the technologies do not readily share data with each other or that they dislike the continual focus on the self, obsessiveness and anxieties that these practices encourage. The realities of quantifying the self do not always meet expectations.

Privacy issues are also a major concern as more and more data are collected by self-trackers. The data collected by the developers of digital self-tracking devices and associated platforms are owned by these developers, who may use the data to sell to third parties for commercial reasons. The manufacturers of self-tracking devices are beginning to approach workplaces as a site for encouraging people to use them and compete against each other. There are concerns that people may feel pressured into using them to meet employers’ expectations.

As this suggests, there is much more to investigate about the self-tracking phenomenon.

Medical and public health professionals who are interested in encouraging lay people to quantify themselves need to be aware of their limitations as well as their possibilities.

• Deborah Lupton is Senior Principal Research Fellow (Professor), Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney. For more reading, see her recent article, “Understanding the human machine” in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (Winter 2013).

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